Saturday, September 8, 2018

Trench of the Bayonets: Myth and Reality

Trench of the Bayonets, Scott B7 (from eBay)
France lost over a million men during World War 1.  The worst battle was that of Verdun, which lasted from February to October 1916.  The focal point of the battle was a pre-war French fortress Douaumont and the nearby village of the same name.  By the end of the battle, Fort Douaumont had been captured by the Germans, recaptured by the French, and the village had been completely destroyed.  

Fort Douaumont after Battle of Verdun (left), a lunar landscape of shell craters and trenches, and pristine polygonal layout before the battle (right), (Source: Wikicommons).

Huge numbers of artillery shells were fired into the battle zone by both sides, and up to 20 percent of those shells did not explode upon impact, but rather plowed into the ground.  They remain there, still capable of killing over century later.  For this reason Douaumont and eight other destroyed villages were never rebuilt.

When the battle was over, a French officer walking over the battlefield found a row of rifles, some say twelve, others say twenty-one, jutting out of the ground.  Beneath each rifle were the remains of a French soldier.  These soldiers were from the 137th Infantry Regiment, and the position, a trench to the west of Fort Douaumont, then in the hands of the Germans, had last been seen under heavy German artillery fire.  

The place first became known as the Tranchée des fusils (Trench of the Rifles).  The most likely explanation was that the men had been killed either in the trench or nearby, the trench then was used as a make-shift grave, and the rifles had been set up against the trench wall as grave markers.  

For the post-war newspapers and propagandists, it was not enough that the men of the 137th Regiment had died in defense of France; instead a modern Thermopylae was required, particularly where the meagre results of the war looked like poor bargain indeed for the huge loss of life.

Soon the Trench of the Rifles became the Tranchée des Baïonnettes, the Trench of the Bayonets.  

Scott B7, a semi-postal stamp issued by France just after war, for the benefit of war orphans, illustrates the new story.  

Supposedly the soldiers had fixed their bayonets on the ends of their rifles, and placed them against the trench wall to defend against the imminent German infantry assault.  Rather than retreat, the men stayed at their posts until buried alive by exploding artillery shells which collapsed the trench.

This is almost certainly untrue.  While large numbers of soldiers had been killed in trenches all at the same time, it appears that in no case were rifles found placed along the trench walls.  And it was much harder for artillery shells to collapse a trench than the press of the time supposed.  

Despite all of this, in the early 1920s, a memorial to perpetuate the myth was built at the supposed site of the trench, and that memorial remains to this day.

The Trench of the Bayonets sort of propagandizing continues to this day, in other countries, including our own.  We have seen a number of examples in our country's recent wars. 

Consider the false reports that Private Jessica Lynch, during the early days of the Iraq war, had put up a heroic defense when her vehicle was attacked; in fact, as she herself insisted, she  had been injured so severely in the wreck of her vehicle  that she was captured while unconscious.  This, like the Trench of the Bayonets, was offered as a distraction from a very real controversy over the involvement of a nation in war.

The people most addicted to creating this sort of propaganda, both then and now, seem to be living in safety well away from the battle zone.  Such tales are an insult to the actual fighting men and women, who, just as the soldiers of the 137th Regiment at Verdun, need no glorification in the press to prove their courage and devotion to their country.

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